AUBURN, Ala. — Nearly nine months after a scary neck injury left him motionless on the Jordan-Hare Stadium grass, Auburn safety Zac Etheridge has been given medical clearance to play this season.
The senior, a veteran on the Tigers defense who has started 33 games and made 192 tackles in his career, received the news Tuesday from Birmingham-based neurosurgeon Dr. Swaid N. Swaid after undergoing an MRI scan, an X-ray and several tests that measured the range of motion and strength of his neck.
“He said it was great,” Etheridge said. “If you look at it, you couldn’t tell that I had an injury.”
Etheridge’s season was cut short last year after he tore ligaments in his neck and cracked his C5 vertebrae against Mississippi on Oct. 31. The 6-foot, 213-pound safety jammed his helmet into teammate Antonio Coleman’s shoulder pad while trying to tackle Mississippi running back Rodney Scott in the first quarter.
He was immobilized on a stretcher and transported to a Birmingham hospital. Despite fears of permanent damage, Etheridge avoided surgery and was up and about several days later, walking into a team meeting in the Auburn Athletic Complex with his neck stabilized by a two-piece brace.
Etheridge, who wore the restrictive halo for three to four months and a smaller neck brace for another two, began a rehabilitation program with the goal of returning to the field.
Although he was not allowed to participate in spring drills, he began lifting weights and participated in voluntary workouts this summer.
He admitted he gave a lot of thought to what he would do if he didn’t get medical clearance to return to the field.
“My family, coaches, we all talked about it,” Etheridge said. “That’s something that they talked to me about, saying football wasn’t everything and you could move on. But with the passion I have for it, it’s hard for me to say no to the game.”
Swain told Etheridge he had a 2 percent greater chance than a normal person of suffering a recurrence of the injury.
“Everybody can go out there and get the same injury,” Etheridge said. “It’s a chance that I’m taking. It’s my decision to return to the field.”
His father, Donald Kelly, who watched as Etheridge spoke, admitted it will be nerve-wracking to see his son play football again, but he said the family stands behind the decision.
“He was pretty dead-set,” Kelly said. “He loves football. I put it in his hands. I talked to him about the situation, and he’s just a strong person.”
Etheridge expects to be slowly re-introduced to contact when preseason practice begins Aug. 4, although he said there is no reason to believe he wouldn’t be ready for the Tigers’ season-opener Sept. 4 against Arkansas State at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
His return would be a boost to a secondary that has questions at safety, with Aairon Savage returning after missing the last two seasons with knee and Achilles’ injuries and Mike McNeil back after sitting out last year with a broken leg.
Etheridge thinks he still will play the physical style he had before the injury. If a receiver comes across the field, he’ll take his shot.
“Them are your dream shots,” Etheridge said. “If someone comes across the middle, I’m going to take it. No hesitation at all.
“You might find yourself a step slower at first, but, once you get out there and practice with the guys and get in the tempo of things, you kind of gain that confidence each day. It will be a process of me just gaining that confidence and getting back out there.”